My Sleepy Summer in Hell: The Polonia Brothers' & Todd Michael Smith's Splatter Farm
There is something inherently unhealthy about forced time with your family, especially when you’re younger and all but birthed onto an uneven playing field. In the best-case scenario, the older relatives are well-meaning obstacles to the scattershot follies and fun of being a teenager.
But what about the worst-case scenario?
After all, all families have secrets, but the weirder and more dysfunctional the family, the skeletons in the closet are in a constant state of decomposition…eternally stinking of a miasma of rotting flesh and sin. Yet, when it comes to abuse and danger, the dead don’t have a thing on the living.
Welcome to The Polonia Brothers' and Todd Michael Smith's 1987 film, Splatter Farm.
This early SOV (that’s shot-on-video for any of you cult cinema greenhorns) effort packs a punch while nailing something authentically queasy about both families, summertime, and staying in the countryside. Splatter Farm centers on two twin brothers in their late teens, Joseph (John Polonia) and Alan (Mark Polonia), played by the real-life brothers and co-directors/writers who, if IMDB is to be trusted, literally graduated high school the year before they made Splatter Farm. Joseph and Alan are spending another sleepy summer at home and doing the typical teen activities like relaxing in hammocks, taking bubble baths, smoking, and swigging from fifths of bourbon. Where are their parents? Who knows? The nice, respectable home takes on a ghostly quality with a tangible adult absence and a pensive vibe from both brothers.
Of course, part of the pensiveness can be tied to the fact that they are heading out to visit their Aunt Lacey (Marion Costly) at her remote farm. During the car ride, we find out that they haven’t seen her since they were twelve, which wouldn’t be so disturbing if it was not for Joseph telling Alan that “...she’s always had the hots for you…” and “...relatives” aren’t supposed to give you funny looks like that. Already, the kind of horror that Splatter Farm holds is far gristlier than your run-of-the-mill slasher film.
Before we get too knuckle deep in the shorn offal here, there’s a young man at the farm with Aunt Lacey named Jeremy (Todd Michael Smith). In lieu of any murder mystery, we see him very early on being the provider of so much of the titular splatter. His relationship with the older woman is a mystery, though when the brothers arrive, she tells them that he is just a hired hand to help out during the summer. The often silent tow-headed boy with his introverted demeanor and air of genetic damage is one of horror’s most unforgettable characters. Todd Michael Smith brings such a polluted blend of guileless beauty, uncaged bloodlust, and bent perversions, whether he is touching himself under the kitchen table next to Lacey and the brothers or utilizing a freshly severed head as an oral love tool. It’s a brave and smart performance that never even glides near the valley of camp
That said, the small core cast, which is just Smith, Costly, and the Polonias all bring an earnestness and, as strange as this may sound when attached to a film that deals with serial murder, cannibalism, incest, and necrophilia, a type of purity. Their collective and individual presence carries this sense of feeling like an organic part of their setting, which helps further emphasize the one-of-a-kind wrongness of it all.
Both Mark and John Polonia are likable as the brothers, with their respective characters having distinctive personality differences, down to even the way they physically carry themselves, adding further authenticity to the unhealthy proceedings. (Being actual twins does not necessarily hurt anything, either.) Alan is the slightly more naive but sweet brother who worries about Aunt Lacey being alone all these years after the mysterious murder, via an axe-to-the-head, of her husband, as well as being protective over Joseph as well. Speaking of which, Joseph is the more crude of the two, but with his crassness comes an innate awareness that things are far from right at the family farm. Also, it is Joseph that gets the immortal line, “I hate to spoil lunch but I have to take a shit.” The moments of camaraderie we see are hilarious and actually charming. Like when they talk about maybe going up the road and visiting “The Nolan Girls” which nets the biggest teenage response with, “You mean the ones with the big titties?!”
Though when it comes to dialogue that will stick and smear the inside of your brain like a snotty wall walker, it is Marion Costly who wins that award. While it is apparent that at the core, she is the least experienced in front of the camera, this is less of a negative on her and more a feather in the other three’s hats for being so passionate and eager with filmmaking at a young age. Also, being underpolished acting-wise is not necessarily a bad thing in a film when the performer has that mix of willingness that errs more on the understated side without getting boring or flat and Costly is anything but those two things. Whenever she pats Alan on the thigh and says things like, ‘We’ll enjoy our times together…it’s been a long time since a real man has been here at the farm…”, it's hard not to feel at least a little squicked out and that’s good! Her Aunt Lacey possesses this Midwestern Rockwell grandmother-type menace, which is beyond inappropriate.
With the atmosphere, the film intercuts quiet nature shots, often with little to no music. The beauty of seeing a close-up of a butterfly or a rural field that starts from here to seemingly nowhere except further country desolate oblivion after witnessing such slippery grue and wanton torture is lush as it is stark. Human horror spilled upon (mostly) untouched nature just feels extra obscene.
Yet, all the roads in Splatter Farm lead back to Todd Michael Smith. His performance as Jeremy is preternaturally good given that he’s in his late teens and more than likely, barely out of high school. While you do sense that he as well as the Polonias, are all having fun, there is something about Smith that has extra gravitas and on-screen charisma. His Jeremy may or may not be ultimately the real villain of the piece, but either way, he is as tragic and triumphant as he is dangerous.
Splatter Farm takes the uneasiness of being stuck at a farm with a relative you barely know during a summer before easy escapes via smartphones existed and bone-stitches it to transgressive acts of human horror. We live in an era where too many films are over-produced and polished to the point where no distinctions can have a real chance to shine. So seeing this late 1980s shot-on-video crusty, effective, and forever striking film is an antidote to the worst crime a movie can commit…being bland.
It was released on VHS in 1990 via an Independent company called Donna Michele Productions, which was notable for releasing other titles like Woodchipper Massacre and Attack of the Killer Refrigerator. After that, it was out of print for a number of years until 2007 when a subsidiary of Alternative Cinema named Camp Motion Pictures released a special edition on both DVD and new VHS. The key difference between the two versions is that while the latter is a director-approved “restored” cut, it is slightly less graphic than the original VHS. There are also a few visible editing flourishes added that feel less copacetic to the core vibe of the film. Sadly, this is even out-of-print and currently fetching high prices on eBay, though you can find both versions floating around online. (Obviously, this is not ideal.)
Between how prolific the Polonias would become, not to mention Smith’s fascinating path as a director that culminated in the riveting-sounding but extremely hard-to-find The Writers (2011), it would be great to see Splatter Farm not only back in print, but with both versions available. Thanks to the incredible work that the fine writers over at Bleeding Skull have been doing, as well as labels like Alternative, Sub Rose Cinema, Saturn’s Core, and W.A.V.E., the interest and love for shot-on-video is higher more than ever.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is that three out of the mighty four of Splatter Farm have all crossed the Rainbow Bridge. Marion Costly, who according to an interview with Mark Polonia was Todd Michael Smith’s actual grandmother (!), passed away in 2017. John Polonia tragically died in 2008 at age 39 and then ten short years later, Todd Michael Smith also left this plane. In a sweet move, Mark Polonia’s 2020 sequel, Return to Splatter Farm, does have a dedication to his brother, Costly, and Smith.
While the original Splatter Farm might be in out-of-print limbo, it is forever a work that captures not only a moment of time for three vibrant and young creatives but also an impactful work of horror that worries less about conventions and more about creating something raw and wholly special. The Polonias and Todd Michael Smith have tattooed a place in this cineaste’s heart because of it.